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Bart Ehrman vs. Michael Brown on Suffering

In my post on Saturday I discussed the issue of death and laid out briefly my view that this life is all there is.  That does not mean, however, that I think we should just party-hard since there is no life to come.  I have long been intrigued by the “problem of suffering,” and I have never, in fact, taken it to be just an intellectual problem.  I think as human beings we need to deal with suffering if we want to lead life to its fullest.  But I’m still intrigued with the problem: how can there can be such massive suffering in the world if there is a God in control of it?  I have had several debates on the subject, and here is one of the hardest, on video.

The debate was with Dr. Michael L. Brown, a very smart Jewish believer in Jesus.  We had the debate on April 15, 2010, at  Ohio State University.  The debate was inspired largely by my book, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer”.  Michael Brown did not much like my views of such things.  He’s a very good debater.   As you’ll see!

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Debate with a Mythicist! And the Book of Revelation. Readers’ Mailbag September 25, 2016
Where Did the Trinity Come From? Video Lecture.



  1. Avatar
    AggieGnostic  September 23, 2016

    If a non-religious person were to attend this debate, having no previous knowledge of either the Bible or Christianity, Dr. Brown’s arguments would come across as laughable quasi-intellectual contortionism. There is almost a conspiracy theory-like quality to Christian apologetics that somehow involves synthesizing completely disparate information into what they think is some semblance of a cohesive theory. For instance, God is just and loving but he’s also not immune to being a cruel SOB either. For example, if my father smacked me around on a regular basis, I wouldn’t think he was such a swell guy. But if I torture my psyche enough (as is often the case with abuse survivors), I might be able to convince myself that the fault lay with me, not him. Such is Christianity.

    Christian narratives are (somehow) woven together into such a jumbled intellectual mess that they don’t pass any objective smell test. Christianity seems to me to be psychological self-flagellation coupled with a powerful guilt narrative.

    I understand that Dr. Brown’s faith originated from a dark place (heroin addiction), but not all of us have such dark sides. Jesus (allegedly) said the well don’t need a doctor, only the sick do. Not everyone is in need of whatever Jesus (or Dr. Brown) allegedly offers. In his own way, I think Jesus realized this even then.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 27, 2016

      Great insights. Thanks also for reminding me that Jesus said (allegedly) that not everyone needed him. There is so much in the New Testament (and Tanakh) that flies in the face of those who claim to believe in it (like the 15 or more verses in which Jesus explicitly draws a clear distinction between himself and the Father)).

  2. Avatar
    rburos  September 25, 2016

    He IS good. I was impressed by his response that we shouldn’t judge God without looking at what we fail to do, motes in your eye being a biblical concept and all. But of course comparing us mortals with an all-powerful, all-loving creator-God isn’t fair (especially if he created us).

    Your concern for Haiti is personal to me and I am grateful, as I was part of the “invasion” of 1994. The level of suffering (even before the earthquake) can not come across on a news report. I remember listening to Pat Robertson tell the world the reason for the earthquake in Haiti was because their ancestors had sold their souls to the Devil in order to escape slavery. It wasn’t exactly an academic or sympathetic treatment, but unfortunately a common one.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 26, 2016

    I finally did look at all but the last half hour of this. Of course I thought you were “right” and he was “wrong”…but you were coming from such different places, holding such different *beliefs*, that it was all rather pointless. How can you have a sensible debate with someone who really believes, for example, that “God” made a special pact with the Jewish people, and had every right to torture and kill them when they “broke” it?

    I never could figure out exactly what his “better world of the future” was supposed to be. An Earth where everything would be much, much better, but people would still die and go to…”heaven”? If no one in that era would ever “sin”? Of course that wouldn’t justify his “God’s” permitting all the suffering that takes place now!

    I have to share this thought. Any modern writer who chose to tell the “Job” story would add a few more lines to make clear that Job’s *original* children were being restored to him – exactly as they’d been, with no memories of traumatic things having happened to them. If Prof. Brown believes “the Bible” was divinely inspired, does that mean his “God” wasn’t intelligent enough to think of that?

  4. tompicard
    tompicard  September 30, 2016

    There was something missing from the debate from both Drs. Ehrman & Brown.

    Dr. Ehrman presented adequately that parts of the Bible are idiocy.
    Yet, then went on to bash God as an uncaring tyrant. That doesn’t necessarily follow.

    That the Bible has some very disturbing passages about God commanding or condoning slaughter is only an issue if you believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.
    Apparently that is Dr. Brown’s hypothesis, and so it was naturally hard for him to score in this debate.

    But Dr. Brown intimated at several important points.
    One is that maybe God’s expectation/design is that it is His children (i.e. humans) responsibility to resolve the specific problems of suffering such as children dying of hunger or preventable diseases, slavery, interminable wars, etc. However I don’t know if that theory is much propounded in scripture.

  5. Benjamin
    Benjamin  October 15, 2016

    I must honestly confess that the first time I watched and listened to the debate on suffering, it was a Youtune video and this Bart Ehrman of God debates this godless Dinesh D’Souza. ( he claims to know God’s will, but his life style denies him). I watched this debate at least ten to fifteen times, and watched his lecture on suffering and these subsequent debates with Brown and Butt.

    Every time I had a moment, while I was driving or when I had some quiet time, I would listen to these debates and read his book on God’s own very problem. This question consumes me. It has a role in the loss of this Bart Ehrman’s faith, as it did mine. I read and ponder on Job often, and wonder why it had to be me. Why can’t this cup of suffering be passed over me instead of forcing me to drink it. I was anointed and chosen as a firm, hard-headed fundamentalist, and armed with good faith in the Bible and the doctrines of eternal damnation, I was supposed to go and rescue these infidels. Besides, these infidels smell. Their lives are reeked with stench of immorality and adultery. No wonder that God would personally damn them to hell. Their punishment is all but from a just God. And then I went under, and the sufferings and challenges to my own faith thrust me on this new scene. I was dealt with a blow and began as a small retreat in my faith and at the end, I lost it.

    Why did it not happen to those godless D’Souzas. and had to be me?

    When I reason with these fundamentalists about Job and his suffering, they had no answer. It is absurd why Job suffered and how an absurd God made him suffer. The whole thing is absurd and away from my understanding.

    Why is there suffering in the world, when there is such a claim that God is all powerful and loving?

    At the end, I came to accept my own frailty and the fragility of my God. My God got murdered in the process and as he laid dying, so was my fundamentalist faith. Now my life is newly resurrected, and as I have been given a new life after my own Evangelical faith. I no longer assume there is a good answer to why we all suffer, but like this Ehrman, the Lord, the giver of my new life, I seek to help others who suffer and be part of their journey. We are all human, and like other human beings preceded me, we too, must die and suffer corruption. If that is an answer, this is the answer of my suffering. That I am mortal. That my mortality gets in the way. That God is also mortal, that he too, dies. That God is not the answer to my suffering. We all are. We are our own answers and we lend a helping hand if we could.

    I am going to listen to these debates again. They help me to go through this life knowing that people like this eminent one, Bart Ehrman of God, took the time to think and come up with a biblical answer to help me in this commonwealth of suffering. Thank you. and Thank you.

  6. Avatar
    Junto  December 2, 2016

    In the debate Michael claimed that only he could comfort the mother who had just lost a son. Not so. What if the mothers son was a muslim, agnostic or unrepentant criminal? He wouldn’t even be able to offer the often recited milk-toast platitude, “He’s at peace now.” No, Michael would have to tell her that her son is currently being tormented day and night, forever and ever.
    And what would he say to the person dying of cancer? If he’s not a Christian he’d first have to explain to him that he’s not only on his death bed but he’s in danger of an eternity of torment if he doesn’t get right with God. Even if the dying man accepts Jesus on the spot, he should be terrified (assuming the rest of his family is also non-Christian) that even if he is accepted into heaven, his wife and kids will be tormented for eternity if they don’t convert and he may never see them again. To the poor person it’s the same problem.

  7. Avatar
    Jacobsmom  May 16, 2018

    I am a mother who has lost a child. Thank you Dr. Ehrman for saying that the best thing is to sit with the suffering person and not talk. How incredibly refreshing! Many parents I have met online on child loss forums have stated that they have turned towards secular friends and away from Christian friends in their grief. A secular friend has no agenda to push and is more likely to just listen. I don’t want to hear about how happy my child is in Heaven. I’d rather he be here. The impression I get from some Christian friends is that it is more important that their proper view of Christianity is portrayed through my suffering than I get to feel however I feel all by myself. I am placed in a mold and need to follow along.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2018

      I am so very sorry to hear about your son. Please accept my condolences, and kind thoughts for you as you try to go on.

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